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How teleworking revolutionised my working life

by Paddy Ashdown MP
 

 

I have been "teleworking" for over ten years now. It started fairly basically, with an electronic mail box which I would send letters and documents to when I was out of the office, and which could then be accessed by my office in the House of Commons. I used this, by present standards, primitive facility during my election campaign to become Leader of the Party in 1988. Very little changed until three years ago, when the Liberal Democrats started to use Cix for e-mail and conferencing, and I gained the email address paddyashdown@cix.co.uk.

This has revolutionised the way I am now able to work. Both my constituency office and my London offices have email addresses, and I am now able to discuss issues with them, no matter where I am, be it Bosnia or Birmingham. Using my small palmtop machine, I can write an article in Sarajevo and send it to a newspaper for publication without the need for a printer.

An online party

The conferences that have been set up on the Cix system help me to keep in touch with the Party as a whole. There are several hundred activists now on-line, and the traffic in the various different fora can be daunting. Policies are dissected and discussed in these fora, and feedback to speeches, articles or TV and radio appearances can be almost instantaneous. These discussions allow me to see the mood of many of our activists, and I can discuss peoples' concerns with them directly. This allows for very fast dissemination of information.

As a Party, we use this speed of communication to pass on press releases and statements from Parliamentary spokespeople, items which are also posted to our web pages on a daily basis. Through this system, we managed to inform the Party when Emma Nicholson joined the Liberal Democrats before the story broke nationally. Often in the run up to Conference, which is the Liberal Democrats' policy making body, motions are suggested and amended on email, prior to their submission. It allows people in very disparate locations to get together and debate matters of concern, without having to worry about their phone bills!

Constituency work

Much of my constituency work involves correspondence with the local district and county councils. Both are now moving towards a system where casework can be emailed directly to them, which would lead to a completely paperless transfer of documents relating to each case. This will save time, and should lead to a more efficient service to my constituents. It should also mean that if an urgent case arises whilst I am abroad, I can deal with it and forward on my response immediately.

I am fascinated by the opportunities which videoconferencing presents. Some Liberal Democrat MPs, represent constituencies which are remote, with widely scattered constituents, who may not find it possible to attend a surgery with their MP, such as Jim Wallace who represents the Orkneys and Shetland. But if in a nearby village there is a public access point which provides a videoconferencing system, they could dial up their MP and have a face-to-face discussion, without travelling possible for several hours to achieve the same aim.

Promoting access to government

Liberal Democrats believe that new technologies should be all about access. It cannot be right that cable companies can "cherry-pick" the area they want to cable. Those people who live in rural areas, and those on inner city housing estates, have as much right to the information superhighway as the leafy suburbs currently being cabled at a frenzied rate. There are housing estates in Britain where only 25% of households have access to a telephone. And yet, the people living there would have much to gain from the Internet, and its email and videoconferencing spin-offs. This is why there has to be "pump-priming" by the Government to encourage the cabling of the whole country. And why there must be a network of public access points in schools, colleges, doctors' surgeries, libraries and village halls.

With access for anyone who wants it, the Internet will then provide another form of communication for people with their MP. These new forms of communications will make MPs more accessible to a new part of their electorate, and quite possibly one they may not have communicated with before. I have received many messages from people who have said that they would not have written a letter, but were happy to email me. I am happy to receive these, and always endeavour to reply.

The Parliamentary convention which prevents me from becoming involved in issues outside my constituency still applies however. This is important, so that I can continue to concentrate on providing the best possible service to my electorate. Being an MP is, after all, a service industry!

The challenge and the opportunity

Increasing use of information technology will not in itself generate respect for the political process from the electorate. What it will do though is to allow MPs more contact with their constituents, and this contact will be much more immediate. By becoming more responsive to the needs of their constituents, and keeping them informed of events through local web pages perhaps, they can begin to rebuild the mutual trust and respect which should exist between an MP and their constituency.

Freedom of Information is central to the philosophy of the Liberal Democrats, and I am convinced that this core belief is the reason why the Party has embraced email and the Internet with such alacrity. I am certainly determined to ensure that Liberal Democrats are at the forefront of this important technological change, and see it as an immense challenge and opportunity for politicians at all levels.


Paddy Ashdown is MP for Yeovil and former leader of the Liberal Democrats. He can be contacted at The House of Commons, Westminster
Email: paddyashdown@cix.co.uk

This article, which was first published in Flexibility in 1997, gives an insight into how one of the first MPs to adopt teleworking was able to use it to support a high paced, mobile work-style.

Productive use of ICT seems to be a must for politicians, both to be more efficient and to improve communications with their voters. 

But 3 years on, we wonder how many havecaught up with Paddy Ashdown?

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